The London mayoral election is being covered as if it was a series of "I'm a Celebrity – Get Me Into City Hall!" where instead of eating kangaroo penis, the candidates have to endure the more distasteful fate of being interviewed by Nick Ferrari.
It’s not hard to see why personality rules the coverage. This is a fight between a Homer-quoting comedian who seems to have skidded from the pages of Evelyn Waugh on a bob-sleigh, a one-time-revolutionary Labour rebel with a love for amphibians and a hatred of SUVs, and Britain’s highest-ranking gay policeman – who happens to have confessed an interest in anarchism.
But when I interviewed the mayoral candidates for this month’s issue of Attitude – Britain’s best-selling gay magazine, out on Monday – I found that behind the glitz, there is a serious skills gap between the candidates.
When I meet Boris in the shell of the old City Hall building – long-since sold off to Japanese developers and turned into hotels and offices – he is everything his ‘Have I Got News For You’ fans would hope. The jokes – genuinely funny, which is almost unprecedented in politics – tumble out. I ask him if Eton in his day was a hot-bed of sodomy. “To a degree I find personally insulting,” he says, “it wasn’t really like that for me.” I ask him if he agrees with a Ken Livingstone line from the early 1980s, that we are all potentially bisexual. “Oh, I am a polymorphous pervert,” he replies.
But when we get onto the issues, I get worried. I ask him why he supported Section 28, the notorious legislation that banned teachers from “promoting” homosexuality – and it quickly becomes clear he doesn’t actually know what it was. “As I recall the issue was to do with compulsion. Wasn't the question [about] whether or not schools should be compelled to have [these lessons]? I thought the issue was: are you compelling teachers in schools to take a particular line? I'm not in favour of that… There’s far too much proscription already of what teachers have to say and do. I’m against bossiness”
But Boris, I explain – Section 28 was the act of bossiness and proscription. It was a flat-out ban, telling teachers not to talk about gays. He goes into his ‘oh cripes’ routine, as if it is charming that he supported a piece of legislation he had totally misunderstood.
On all the questions, he seems to go into a sort of panicked free association, where he desperately to find a link to something he does know about. When I ask him what he would do to reduce the sky-high rate of suicide among gay teenagers, he starts talking about the need to get kids out of gangs – as if the Brick Lane Massiv is stocked with gay-boys and lesbians. He admits he isn’t sure what you call the unions between gay people – they’re civil partnerships, Boris.
And when I ask him how he can justify comparing gay marriage to a man marrying a dog just a few years ago, he says: “I think, as society evolved, taboos will go and shift. I was just making the point that things that seem unacceptable to one generation can be acceptable to the next generation. All I was doing was making a powerful point in favour of tolerance.”
The contrast with Ken Livingstone is startling. When I meet him at the top of the new City Hall he dubbed “the glass testicle”, he is in a laconic mood after enduring a relentless press kicking. He’s keen to talk about global warming, and says with a wry smile, “Thirty years ago, when I was planning what we would do after the British revolution, I never imagined that now I’d be trying to get people to insulate their lofts to save the world.”
But I pepper him with questions about very specific issues affecting gay Londoners, he always responds – without notes – with a battery of statistics and facts. I ask about the rise in HIV infections among gay men, and he knows the figures off the top of his head. He talks me through the practical problems: at the moment, in most of London’s STD clinics, if you go and ask for a test, they give you an appointment in two weeks’ time. “A lot of young people just aren’t going to say, ‘I'm not going to have sex for two weeks,’” he says. “The research shows that’s when you see a lot of STD transmission.” He then lists how he is lobbying the local health authorities to close this waiting gap, and what they need to do now – before going on to list other practical problems, and his solutions.
He knows the names of STD clinics all over London, and I don’t think it’s because he’s coming down with ghonnorhea: he offers this level of detail on every question I ask.
But there is one issue where gay Londoners – who have seen Ken as a defender and champion for thirty years – were shocked by the mayor. In 2004, Ken Livingstone invited an Islamic fundamentalist called Yusuf al-Qaradawi as an “honoured guest” to City Hall. This Egyptian cleric has been quoted calling for the murder of gay men and lesbians – yet when Peter Tatchell challenged Ken over it, he announced Tatchell was “Islamophobic.”
Ken backs down, a little. He says he didn’t know much about Qaradawi before this scandal broke out: he just knew that he had been praised by everyone from the Guardian to the Sun as the voice of moderate Islam. He says he “probably shouldn’t” have slammed Tatchell (damn right) but he is reluctant to believe what he has read in the papers about Qaradawi because he has read “so many lies” about himself.
“In politics you engage with people which you have profound disagreements with,” he says. “When the Mayor of Moscow comes here, I talk to him too, and he bans gay pride marches. It didn't stop me lobbying him for his three votes on the Olympics, internationally. If it had gone the other way, well, then Paris would be holding the Olympics.” He stresses that on every act of practical policy, he has sided with gay rights against religious rights. For example, when the Blair government said religious groups don’t have to follow the law banning discrimination on the basis of sexuality, Ken used the mayor’s office to lobby hard against it.
The Lib Dem candidate Brian Paddick isn’t embarrassed to appeal to the gay vote as One of Us. He says, “You know, we went through decades of being targeted by the police. Now it's pay back time.” He speaks about gay issues as a man who has fought through them all: he pledges to crack down on homophobic bullying in schools, as a survivor of it himself, and he promises to crack open homophobia in the police, as a man who rose through it to be Number Two in the Met. He has moving stories and some fresh ideas – but at times they are sketchy. When I ask him specifically what we should be doing about homophobic bullying, he keeps vaguely saying we must “do more.” Ken, by contrast, talked on this issue about the specific organisations he wants to fund, and the projects he wants to pursue.
If this race is the X-Factor of politics, Ken may end up as an ex-mayor. But if this is about who has the administrative skill, progressive politics and practical knowledge to run London, then this is no contest at all.